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Who dares, wynn's

The late playwright Hugh Leonard once nurtured a crazed vision of Wynn's Hotel. He imagined that if he looked behind a sofa he would find the great lyricist Percy French singing, "Are ye right there, Michael?''

The hotel just off O'Connell Street has been untroubled by the vagaries of time and fashion over the decades.

In the teak-lined bar you will still find elderly priests enjoying a quick glass of Powers whiskey before shuffling off to say their prayers in the nearby Pro-Cathedral.

Groups of ladies chatter merrily over hot tin pots of tea. They are the sort of folk who might still call Heuston Station 'Kingsbridge'.

It harks back to an era of steam engines, tweed caps and wedding breakfasts -- but Wynn's caused a few tweaks of envy in the hospitality trade this week when it emerged the hotel on Lower Abbey Street had made a modest profit.

How could this be? Five-star hotels, where once guests might have spent €600 a night to park their Gucci handbags, are going bust -- languishing in NAMA, with their proprietors owing billions.

Over-priced coffee bars selling americano macchiato froth and pseudo-Italian sandwiches have been and gone, and restaurants are falling like nine pins.

The owners of Wynn's, the Loftus family, shunned the glitz of the Celtic Tiger era -- the pretentious nouvelle cuisine and €12 champagne mojitos.

They dared to ignore the brash 20 and 30-somethings who appeared to have oodles of cash. Instead, Wynn's pitched its business squarely at mature ladies and gents, the old stock who "have their dinner in the middle of the day''.

Eugene Nee, a retired chaplain from Co Galway who now lives in Coventry in England, and his friend Kathleen Cashin, from Charleville, Co Cork, have been coming to the hotel for 40 years. They told me they would not go anywhere else.

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Eugene said over tea and biscuits: "What I like about it is that you get to know all the staff and it is a great place to meet people from all over the world. You can talk to anyone in the bar.''

He said the staff not only carried his bags to his room, but the owner Neil Loftus had even given him lifts to the airport on occasion.

Would Paris Hilton drive me to the airport if I pitched up at a Hilton?

At lunchtime when I visited on Tuesday, the carvery-scented lounge was packed, and it was difficult to find a seat.

The menus in the hotel are reassuringly uncluttered by the latest culinary fads. Here you can still find fantail of melon, which was last in fashion in the swankier establishments back in the age of Abba and the kipper tie.

Of course there is roast beef with horseradish; leg of lamb and mint sauce; wavy gravy and plenty of stuffing; Bakewell tart and Swiss roll. It will take a lot more than a Tiger boom and the greatest recession in living memory to drive away the loyal customers.

They do not appear to be the types who would blow their savings on a fancy car or an apartment in Bulgaria.

In its 166-year existence, the hotel has had to face much stiffer challenges to its existence than the mere economic collapse of the country. Fire has ripped through the building and it has been sprayed with bullets.

By time of the 1916 Rising, Wynn's was already an established name in Dublin. The redoubtable founder Miss Phoebe Wynn apparently had a lot of pull with the Church of Ireland clergy, and they arrived in droves. With a change of ownership, its religious orientation shifted and it became the favoured city haunt of Catholic priests up from the country.

In 1913 a group of leading nationalists, including Padraig Pearse, met in the hotel to form the Irish Volunteers -- the group that led the Rising three years later. And when the Rising came there was no better place than Wynn's to watch the drama unfold just a few yards away at the GPO on O'Connell Street.

A rebel volunteer on the roof of the GPO later recalled how he saw men and women "sitting in the windows of Wynn's Hotel in Lower Abbey Street, watching the battle as from a theatre seat''.

Then, what began as entertainment for the guests turned dangerous. Under bombardment from British artillery, Wynn's and the surrounding buildings caught fire.

With guns blazing all around them, staff and guests fled the hotel holding a makeshift white flag. It took 10 years for the gutted hotel to reopen.

For much of the 20th Century, Wynn's was under the same ownership as the Clarence Hotel on Wellington Quay, but the two hotels are now like chalk and Galtee cheese.

The hotels once attracted similar clienteles, upstanding country folk; but their paths diverged sharply when the Loftus family sold the Clarence to a consortium involving U2.

Wynn's has stuck to what it knew best -- three-star solidity, with smallish rooms starting at €79, and lunches available for as little as €13.

The hotel certainly has not lost out by failing to pander to the modish whims of the younger generation. When I visited, almost all the occupants of the lounge were over 60. Latest figures show the hotel to have made a profit of €55,000 last year.

Meanwhile, U2 and other investors have poured millions into the Clarence which has been transformed into a "boutique hotel'', feted in travel guides across the world. It may be hipster heaven, complete with cosmopolitan cocktails and bubble-jet hot tubs, but the most recent reports covering the year 2009 showed that the hotel's losses were mounting.

A visit to Wynn's, by contrast, is a bit like dinner at your granny's house in 1973 -- but perhaps in turbulent times of upheaval that is what people want. If Hugh Leonard did indeed find Percy French lurking behind a sofa in Wynn's singing 'Are Ye Right There, Michael?', the answer from Michael would probably be 'yes'.


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